Period drama: English breaks with tradition
I plumped for a hot tub, even though it was snowing while I immersed myself in it (ahh, England)
April 25, 2013 | By:
Downton Abbey's success has triggered a tourism boom for historic England. Richard MacKichan finds some luxury lodgings from which to base his explorations

Cheltenham’s Ellenborough Park once belonged to India’s Governor General

We’re lucky, us Brits. Our isles positively creak under the weight of history. We have pubs that pre-date entire nations. Yet we don’t seem to have grown tired of it. Quite the opposite in fact. ‘The past’ it seems, is the future. Just ask a TV commissioning department.

Indeed, the success of Downton Abbey and its ilk has prompted a tourism boom that’s being felt all across rural England. Meredith Pearson, a spokeswoman for VisitBritain says it’s helped to “really showcase the beauty of our countryside and quaint villages and all of the manor houses across the country.”

Personally, I find Downton Abbey insufferably tedious (I endured one episode that appeared to revolve around a toaster, fer chrissakes) but it does make our green and pleasant land look, well, rather green and pleasant, and that was enough to inspire me to ride its tourism wave this spring.

My plan? To spend three weekends in three historical destinations in three different counties. My hope? That ‘England + history’ needn’t equal ‘dusty old cottage’.

My method? You can pretty much stick a pin in a map of England and hit historical gold, which is pretty much what I did.

Combermere Abbey: oh Abbey days

First up was an actual Abbey. Combermere Abbey, to be precise, on the rural Shropshire/Cheshire border. It was founded in 1133 by the Baron of Nantwich, and is now owned by Lady Sarah Callander Beckett (the first series of Downton actually included the line “I am out to dinner at the Callander Becketts this evening”, a nod from friend Julian Fellowes).


The Abbey, as is often the way, has been chopped, changed, bastardised and bequeathed over the centuries. Charles II, William III and Samuel Johnson have all stayed over. But it’s the stable block, built in 1837, that was my base.

The hay has long since been replaced with award-winning, five-star, self-catering dwellings, in a pretty red brick ‘n’ cobbles cloister. My home for the weekend was the eponymous Callander cottage, a charming space full of fine furnishings and wooden beams.

Out back it opens on to some fairytale walled gardens, which are understandably popular for weddings, and just fine for a morning stroll.

Snow still lined the ground during my visit so it was a drag tearing myself away from such comfy surrounds, but at least I got to wish luck upon the Nantwich town crier, who loudly informed me that he’d made the 2014 Town Crier Championships (ahh, England).


The converted stables of Combermere Abbey, and, right, relaxing in their gardens

Then it was to the Roman-walled confines of Chester for shopping (in the medieval, two-tiered Chester Rows, the likes of which are found nowhere else on earth), lunch and a gaze at the statuesque cathedral.

Ludlow, the foodie capital, and “loveliest town in England” according to John Betjeman, is within reach too, packed with some of the most inviting pubs I’ve found. Plus, you get to drive through the ever-inviting grassy bosoms of the Shropshire Hills en route, one of our most pleasant vistas.

Lording it up at Ellenborough Park

If the converted stables were my attempt at doing ‘the help’, then Cheltenham’s Ellenborough Park was me very much lording it up. The sweeping estate overlooking the famous racecourse once belonged to the Governor General of India. Now, though, it’s all Nina Campbell interiors, exquisite dining and luxurious spa treatments, set in a labyrinthine house, rich in horse-racing history.

Its draws were too strong to swap for a wind- and rain-lashed drive so it was back massages and bellinis all round; the former enjoyed in a modern ambient treatment space, the latter in a sumptuous Tudor-style drawing room.

Sommelier-selected red wine, smoked salmon, hand-carved at the table, and a satisfying slab of rare beef took care of the rest of the evening.

The nags out yonder are an obvious draw, but this is a most agreeable retreat regardless of your levels of equine enthusiasm. A fine base to explore the manifold delights of the Cotswolds, too. I let my taste buds guide me, opting for late tea at The Tea Chest, by the river at Lechlade-on-Thames, and dinner at the rightly-heralded Kingham Plough near Chipping Norton.

Sherwood Hideaway: to the trees!

After all that decadence, I felt the call of nature for my final weekend and headed to the heart of English folklore, Sherwood Forest. The Sherwood Hideaway (pictured, below) lets you get as close to the trees as you can get without getting muddy, providing well-equipped, hotel room-style, log cabins for you to play out your Robin Hood fantasies.


The Sherwood Hideaway: the perfect base for exploring the famous forest

I plumped for a VIP cabin, mainly for its inclusion of a hot tub, even though it was snowing while I immersed myself in it (ahh, England). Assuming your archery skills aren’t up to scratch, the local area is dotted with excellent farm shops for all your feasting needs, and there are walking and mountain biking trails galore, to work it all off again.

One such route, a quintessentially English amble through thickets, farmland and fields, brings you out at Thoresby Hall, a 19th-century country home-turned-hotel with spa facilities open to Hideaway folk. Their estate is also home to The Queen’s Royal Lancers Regimental & Nottinghamshire Yeomanry Museum, a small but lovingly-preserved collection of military memorabilia, including the actual bugle used to sound the charge of the Light Brigade.

The area clings to its Robin Hood heritage, and rightly so. Britain’s favourite tree, Major Oak, is nearby, the hollow of which, Robin and his merry men are said to have hidden in. But there’s more than just the Prince of Thieves.

The ‘pepper pot’ spires of Southwell Minster are worth a visit, as is Wollaton Hall, the Wayne mansion in the recent Batman trilogy (no rides in the Batmobile, though).

Such weekend adventures once involved grimy rooms above rural pubs, but given England’s proliferation of luxury lodgings, I could continue sticking pins in our map until my wallet was bare and my inner history-geek had its own PhD.

Who knows, maybe a TV channel will commission me to do just that? Ahh, England.